Post Tenebras Lux
Film Title: Post Tenebras Lux
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Willebaldo Torres, Rut Reygadas, Eleazar Reygadas
Running Time: 115 min
If ever a film were immune to “spoiling”, then Carlos Reygadas’s latest, forbiddingly obscure epic is that beast. You might as well try and give away the ending of a situationist installation or a free-jazz saxophone solo. Still, it would be wrong to describe in too much detail an unexpectedly explosive event that greatly enlivens the film’s closing 10 minutes. After all, if you’ve remained conscious that long, you deserve a bit of irreverent fun.
Suffice to say the scene offers up a suggestion that Post Tenebras Lux (the title mischievously translates as “after shadows, light”) might all be one elaborate joke. Maybe, we need work no harder at disentangling its frustrating turns than we do trying to make sense of a Vic and Bob sketch.
If only this were so. The greater part of Reygadas’s film follows the largely mundane adventures of a middle-class family living in a rural corner of Mexico.
Juan (Jiménez Castro) is the very model of a smug, spoilt western patriarch. His sexual needs take priority over his wife’s moods. He has no respect for the beautiful environment around him. In one particularly disturbing scene, he lays into an unfortunate dog just outside the frame. Other equally unpleasant working-class characters gather in the shadows.
If the film is a gag, then it spends far too much time setting up the punchline. These dull, quasi-naturalistic episodes sit uncomfortably with the outbreaks of calculated weirdness that, elsewhere, remind us of Reygadas’s great gifts in the field of confrontational surrealism.
After Japón (sub-tropical Tarkovsky), Battle in Heaven (dirty urban absurdity) and Silent Light (quiet accessibility), the Mexican director has earned his reputation as a wild-eyed visionary. The real frustration of Post Tenebras Lux is that, despite those long, long stretches of tedium, it still features some of the most stunning images you will encounter in a cinema.
We begin with a child (played by Reygadas’s own daughter) wandering in a damp field while dogs gather dangerously around her and various primal sounds build in the background. This stunning opening is soon followed by an equally impressive scene in a very different register: a red, computer-generated demon prowls about the protagonist’s house (again, Reygadas’s own home, though he denies any explicit autobiographical resonances).
The succeeding shift from the beautiful and fantastic to the quiet and domestic will remind some of masterpieces by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But that great Thai director sustains a sense of lurking magic and humanistic compassion throughout his less extravagant sequences. By way of contrast, Reygadas here embraces a clogged misanthropy that rapidly becomes stultifying. If humanity is quite so wretched, one wonders why any artist would bother wrestling with its discontents.
For all that, Post Tenebras Lux does (just about) repay viewers’ tolerance with an intermittent succession of cinematic jewels. The bizarre photography on the exterior scenes justifies the entry fee alone. Alexis Zabé’s camera uses a lens that renders a narrow-ratio image with thick, drunken blurs at the edge of the frame.
Once the eye has got used to the effect, its expressionistic fuzziness proves quite intoxicating. A sex scene in a sauna is plain horrible and characteristically confusing. A sequence depicting English schoolboys playing rugby is (for us, anyway) extraordinary in its extreme ordinariness.
In truth, the further you get from the film the more interesting it seems. That may argue in its favour: those striking images take time to set in. More likely, the brain is retaining and highlighting the moments of excitement while filtering out the lengthy periods of boredom. In that sense, watching Post Tenebras Lux is like serving in a long war. Does that count as a recommendation?